Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin OH

The Culture of Abolitionism at Oberlin and Oberlin College

Tom Lang, HIST3801E

Recognized and remembered today as a symbol of the American abolitionist movement, and by contemporaries as a “hotbed of abolitionism,”[1] the culture of abolitionism in Oberlin throughout the nineteenth century was unrivaled across  America, and perhaps the Atlantic World through its extensive participation in the Underground Railroad, and its decision to educate individuals regardless of ethnicity. However, out of all of the abolitionist actions Oberlin took part in, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1858, remains the most well-known, due in part to the heroic action of the abolitionists, and because of the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers. This paper presents my research into the history of Oberlin, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue and abolitionism and photography, arguing that the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers can be used as an entry point to analyze the culture of abolitionism at Oberlin and Oberlin College, and the role photography played in the abolitionist movement and in forging African American identities. This paper will be argued by first providing the background to the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, arguing that the story alone provides excellent insight into the culture of abolitionism at Oberlin. Next, this essay will use the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers as an entry point to discuss the culture of abolitionism present at Oberlin and Oberlin College, arguing that their sense of moral agency led the rescuers to save John Price without hesitation.  Lastly, this paper will analyze the use of photography by abolitionists and the role photography played in creating African American identities, arguing that the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers displays the same equality they fought for.

When looking just at the history of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, it is clear that the culture of abolitionism present at Oberlin was unique in the Atlantic World. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue occurred on September 13, 1858, when Slave hunter Anderson Jennings kidnapped John Price, an escaped slave, on the outskirts of Oberlin on the promise of employment.[2] However, while on the way to Wellington to board the 5:13 train to Columbus, Jennings’ buggy rode by two Oberlin College students, who once the buggy passed out of eyesight, hurried back to Oberlin to inform the community of the incident.[3] Almost at once, hundreds of members of the Oberlin community rose up and rode off to Wellington in order to rescue Price.[4] By the afternoon, several hundred individuals, from Oberlin and Wellington, surrounded a tavern in Wellington where the slave catchers and Price were at, demanding Price’s release.[5]  After attempts of negotiations failed, and fears of a possible military intervention bubbled up, spontaneously, two separate groups of Oberlin abolitionists assaulted the tavern. The first group, led by Oberlin students John Cowles, William Lincoln, and Ansel Lyman, assaulted the front, while a group led by John Scott, John Copeland, and Charles Langston broke in through the back door of the tavern.[6] After a brief fight with the slave hunters, the Oberlin abolitionists succeeded in rescuing John Price.[7] The abolitionists celebrated in Oberlin that evening with a mass rally, delivering speeches attacking the “Fugitive Slave Law, slaveholders and all those who would offer them sympathy.”[8]

No action was taken against those who rescued John Price until November when thirty-seven indictments were handed out in Oberlin and Wellington for assisting in the rescue of John Price in the defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.[9] The trails began in April, and for eighty-three days the rescuers were imprisoned at the Cuyahoga County Jail. In mid-May, the men indicted from Wellington were let go, as according to the district attorney, their case was examined different than the Oberlin abolitionists, who traveled to Wellington to rescue Price. During this period, the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers was taken, as they posed in the prison yard for the cover photograph for the May issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.[10] Throughout the trial, only two of the rescuers were convicted for their actions- Sim Bushell, the driver of the getaway buggy, faced 60 days imprisonment and a $600 fee, and Charles Langston for twenty days imprisonment and court costs.[11] The trial of the rescuers would come to a close in July after Lorain County judge James Carpenter issued indictments against all the slave hunters involved in the capture of John Price.[12] Abolitionists in Oberlin and across America saw this as a great victory against the injustices of the Fugitive Slave Law, and that the downfall of slavery was at hand.[13]

Looking at the history of Oberlin and its abolitionist activities, my research shows that Oberlin abolitionists decided to partake in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue without hesitation because they felt it was necessary to act against the moral injustices they saw inherently wrong with slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The moral agency towards ending slavery in Oberlin originates in the ideals of the Second Great Awakening, and the Manual Labour movement as the values associated with both came to be at odds with distinctions of class, gender, and race in society.[14]

The moral agency towards ending slavery can be seen clearly in the speech Charles Langston made while on trial for his actions in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. Argued by J. Brent Morris to be one of the most effective speeches of the antebellum period,[15] Langston took the stand before being sentenced to argue that the Fugitive slave law was “…one made to crush the colored man, and one that outrages every feeling of humanity, as well as every rule of Right.”[16] Moreover, Langston argues that he will not use the term slave to describe John Price as he is not that “but a man, a brother, who had a right to his liberty under the laws of God, under the laws of Nature, and under the Declaration of American Independence.”[17]

Additionally, The Rescuer, the newspaper the Rescuers’ published while imprisoned at the Cuyahoga County jail displays the same moral agency towards ending slavery. When explaining the name of their newspaper, the Oberlin abolitionists state that it is not them that needs saving, but the constitution from the “robber hands of the friends of slavery.”[18] Moreover, when discussing whether the trail will pacify their abolitionist actions, the Rescuers respond with one sentence “The service it requires is not the kind we owe to either God, man, or the devil.”[19]

The moral agency towards fighting slavery was so strong in Oberlin that James Monroe, a teacher at Oberlin College, who inexplicably did not partake in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, had always regretted not going according to his daughter’s account.[20] Additionally, John Langston, who was returning to Oberlin on the evening of the rescue, took off for Wellington in extreme haste upon hearing the news, hoping that he might “arrive in time to play some humble part in this drama of genuine manhood and courage.”[21]

Throughout the war on slavery, photographs played a central role in aiding the anti-slavery arguments made by abolitionists. Images of abolitionists and abolitionists’ gatherings would be publicly circulated, informing the public of the cause, and providing hope and inspiration to those fighting.[22] Abolitionists groups would also publicly circulate images of former slaves, demonstrating to the public the violence inherent within the system but also to display the slave’s resiliency towards the system.[23] During the Civil War, abolitionists aimed to temper anxieties over what nationwide emancipation would look like by circulating “before and after” photographs of young children who were rescued by the Union army. The children in the “after” photographs would often be dressed in traditional middle-class Victorian clothes to gain sympathy from the public.[24]

Moreover, historians of photography have uncovered the nuanced ways photography was used in the broader campaign for social and civil equality. While photography offered Americans an unprecedented opportunity for self-representation, it offered African Americans that opportunity as they were making claims on new legal, political and social identities.[25] As such, photography was not only a means of self-representation but also a political tool to create an distribute a new identity that was not based on stereotyped racial norms.[26] Photos of freed men and women across North America came to convey notions of self-worth, dignity, beauty, intellectual achievement and leadership.[27]

With that information in mind, I believe that the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers is such a striking image because it shows how the Rescuers aimed to portray both the abolition movement and African-American identity to a nation that has longed equated African Americans for slavery. The photo displays the confidence and multiracial composition of the Oberlin abolitionists, and its circulation through the press likely played a role in displaying the abolitionist cause for the public. None of the Rescuers are objects of pity or sympathy, they stand proud for their accomplishments in what they see as an ongoing battle for freedom and equality across America. Moreover, the posture and outfits of Charles Langston, and O.S.B. Wall convey similar notions of equality, sophistication, intellectual achievement and leadership to that of the famous portraits of Frederick Douglas or Charlotte Forten. While the abolitionists at Oberlin fought for equality by participating in the Underground Railroad or the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, they also aimed to show equality through photography.

In conclusion, my research examined at the ways the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers could be used as an entry point to examine the culture of abolitionism at Oberlin, and the role photography played in the abolitionist movement and in making new African-American identities. Overall it is clear, that the photograph of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers works as an excellent insight for all of the above. If one were to only examine the history of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, they would find that the culture of Abolitionism present in Oberlin was a unique formation in the Atlantic World.

[1] J. Brent Morris, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 28-29.

[2] Steven Lubet, The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2015), 91-92.

[3] ibid., 92.

[4] ibid.

[5] Morris, 210.

[6] ibid., 210-211.

[7] ibid., 211.

[8] ibid., 213

[9] ibid., 214

[10] ibid., 220

[11] ibid., 215-216.

[12] ibid., 221.

[13] ibid.

[14] Paul Goodman, “The Manual Labor Movement and the Origins of Abolitionism,” Journal of the Early Republic 13 no. 3 (1993): 388, accessed December 2, 2017. DOI: 10.2307/3124349

[15] Morris, 216.

[16] “Eloquent Speech of Langston” The Liberator (Boston, MA), June 3, 1859, accessed December 2, 2017,

[17] ibid.

[18] “The Rescuer” The Rescuer (Cleveland, OH), July 4, 1859.

[19] “Will it Subdue us?” The Rescuer (Cleveland OH), July 4, 1859.

[20] Frederick Blue, “Oberlin’s James Monroe: Forgotten Abolitionist,” Civil war History 34 no.4 (1989): 295, accessed December 2, 2017,

[21] Morris, 212.

[22] Deborah Willis, and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 28.

[23] ibid., 28.

[24] ibid., 18.

[25] Maurice Wallace, and Shawn Smith, “Pictures and Progress” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice Wallace and Shawn Smith (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 5.

[26] ibid.

[27] Willis and Krauthamer, 14.